Where baseball had Jackie Robinson, the movies had Sidney Poitier. The actor broke color barriers at America’s most prestigious and visible film awards, becoming the first Black man to win the Best Actor award (for his work on 1963’s Lilies of the Field) and one of the most visible and successful Black movie stars of the Golden Age. After a trailblazing career on and off-screen, Poitier has died at age 94.
The office of the Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs has confirmed the death of actor, who also once served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan. This political position is just a small taste of Poitier’s diverse career: Aside from an Honorary Oscar, his win for Lilies of the Field and a nomination for The Defiant Ones, Poitier earned multiple Emmy nods, a knighthood, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom as he continued acting and directing until the 1990s.
He also, alongside longtime friend Harry Belafonte, was an ideological and financial supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. While his films broke down racism through sheer portrayals of strong, complex, often self-assured Black men—1967’s To Sir With Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner serving as one of the strongest single years of any actors’ careers—his work behind the scenes reflected this dedication to progressiveness.
“I go in front of a camera with a responsibility to be at least respectful of certain values,” Poitier told the Museum of Living History. “My values are not disconnected from the values of the Black community.”
And beyond that, he was fantastic. Warm, confident and with a dazzling control over his face, voice and body, Poitier’s movie stardom was well-deserved and put to good use. Last year, Arizona State University named their film school in honor of Poitier and his incredible legacy. At the time, Steven J. Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at ASU, said, “Sidney Poitier is a national hero and international icon whose talents and character have defined ethical and inclusive filmmaking.” Very few given the title “icon” deserve it, but here, it’s true.
Most recently, Poitier had turned to writing, authoring autobiographies and a novel. He’s remained off-screen since doing some documentary work and a Larry King appearance in 2008, but his massive four-decade body of work stands tall—just as influential and important as it was when each film was released.
Poitier is survived by his wife and daughters.